Children with autism can frequently become overwhelmed or over stimulated by situations beyond their control. As caregivers, teachers and therapists we may not always know the cause of their discomfort so its important to have a toolbox of calming strategies to help kids calm down, refocus and get back on task. Furthermore, you can prepare for a potentially stressful event by allowing a child to choose a calming activity and use it before the event and to calm down afterwards. Below is a list of common calming techniques you can use with the autistic children you support.
Use the rule of one when a child is deeply stressed, anxious or in the middle of a meltdown. Have only one person talk to the child with autism and ask them to do only one thing. Unfortunately most school models of crises call for bringing in lots of people, lots of people that start talking at once. Rather than calming a situation down this can escalate it. Remember to just have one person, ideally the person who has genuine affection for the child ask the child to do only one thing. This should be simple some examples could be sit in a chair, go to your calm place or take some deep breaths.
When a child becomes stressed or overwhelmed their heat rate increases and their breathing becomes fast and shallow. This creates high blood pressure. You can help a child stop this cycle by simply learning to take deep breaths. Deep breathing is a simple stress management tool that a child can use anywhere to calm and re-center themselves. Its important to teach and practice this technique often before stressful situations arise.
Stop for a moment and squeeze your hands together then open them. As you let go of the tension in your muscles you should notice your muscles are more relaxed than before you started. Here are some simple isometric exercises:
- Making a fist and squeezing
- Pushing hands together
- Pushing knees together
- Shrug your shoulders
- Pushing against a wall
- Pulling against a rope tied around a pole in the playground
For a child who is having difficulty understanding the concept of isometric exercise give them a stress ball to squeeze. You can place the stress ball between their hands, knees, elbows or shoulder and neck to help them learn this relaxation technique.
Like isometric exercises, deep pressure also helps the muscles in the body to let go of tension. Here are a few common ways you can provide deep pressure to children with autism:
- Weighted Items: blankets, vests or lap pads
- Bear hugs – preferably initiated by child
- Allow the child to wrap themselves up tightly in a blanket or sheet
- Play Doh, or Living Sand – include tools to increase muscle resistance so kids really use the muscles in their hands and fingers.
- Have child rub lotion on their arms and legs. Be cautious about smells, it may seem like a good idea to use “calming” lavender lotion but this may not be socially appropriate for boys. Some children are also very sensitive to smells.
- We have found a soft vibrating massage pillow allows a child to provide themselves with calming vibration. Pressure activated pillows also encourage some isometric exercise.
- Provide a small hand held massager the child can control.
Provide a Box of Tactile Items
Some children find very calming a box of interesting things to touch. This can include soft swatches of fabric, soft squishy toys, or small stuffed animals.
Create a Calming Area
Provide a calming place with fidget toys, pillows, bean bag and a soft blanket. This can be as simple as a corner in a room or even a small area rug with calming items behind a teacher’s desk. Make sure to practice going there so the child will identify it as a safe place.
Often stress happens when someone new is working with a child with autism. Remember to communicate across team members and especially with new members. This can be as simple as creating a short “cheat sheet.” Along with therapy goals make a list of behaviors to watch for that indicates stress, successful calming techniques and contact information for the team leader or primary care giver in case a quick consultation is needed.